NFL 1 year ago

NFL: Can the Patriots stop the Falcons?

  • NFL: Can the Patriots stop the Falcons?

    Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Despite neutralising a Pittsburgh Steelers offence boasting Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship game, New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung was quick to compliment the Falcons' receiving corps ahead of next week's Super Bowl LI clash in Houston.

"They got big ones, they got strong ones, they got quick ones, they got shifty ones, they got guys that can go up and get the ball," Chung said. "They have a complete set of receivers."

The Atlanta Falcons have taken the NFL by storm this season and their ultra-explosive offence has been the key reason why. In year two, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has created a playbook bursting at the seams, and provided quarterback Matt Ryan with a platform to realise his elite-level potential.

As the Falcons went 11-5 in the regular season, Ryan produced MVP-type numbers with 4,944 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and a league-best quarterbacking rating (QBR) of 117.1. With center Alex Mack and receiving threats Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel joining the team via free agency and waivers respectively, Ryan's protection and personnel both saw dramatic increase. The team led the league in both points per game (33.8) and for the season (540), and made a habit of shredding opposing secondaries in a multitude of ways.

Though the Patriots allowed Antonio Brown 77 yards in the aforementioned AFC Championship game, Malcolm Butler's underneath coverage, coupled with Devin McCourty playing over the top, limited the star receiver from making any meaningful impact.

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used this same game plan against the Falcons back in 2013 - the last time these two sides met. As the Pats prevailed 30-23, Patricia's plan to stifle Julio Jones was executed to perfection by McCourty and current-Bronco, Aqib Talib.

However, as the Falcons' array of receiving talent have proven this season, utilising this double-team tactic on Jones will only free up space for the other threats around him. Of the four regular season games in which Jones had less than 60 receiving yards, Atlanta prevailed in each one of them. For example, as a Denver double-team kept Jones to just 29 yards in week five, Ryan repeatedly found Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on option routes out of the backfield to the tune of 167 yards.

Attempting to stop this high-powered offence have left defensive coordinators around the league simply scratching their heads. Teams cannot scheme for Julio Jones anymore. The Alabama product has produced another immaculate season averaging over 100 yards per game and over 17 yards per catch. Possessing the perfect combination of strength, speed, agility and route-running ability, the 6'3", 220-pound receiver has terrorised whomever stands in coverage.

But for all this talk surrounding the Falcons' chances of Super Bowl glory, the Patriots remain favourites for a reason. They've been here before - more than anyone else. In fact, the franchise's first Super Bowl came against a St. Louis Rams side led by Kurt Warner and "The Greatest Show on Turf" offence. Bill Belichick, the greatest coach in NFL history, has made a living by outsmarting his opposing number. Who's to say Super Bowl LI will be any different?

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and his successful history as defensive coordinator in Seattle remain a wild card for this Georgian franchise. Quinn's "Legion of Boom" were responsible for drubbing the highest-scoring offence in NFL history back in Super Bowl XLVIII. On that day, Quinn's defensive play-calling forced Peyton Manning's Broncos team into three turnovers, one of which for a touchdown, and a safety.

The buzz and expectation surrounding the city of Atlanta is real. Quinn and his Falcons team have taken shape at the right time. But despite all this, given the nature of their opponent, predicting a winner remains too tough to call.
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